A Tip of the Hat to Old Starkville by Morgan Gates
My wife and I just returned from a little winter vacation. A few days in Savannah Georgia, yes, I eat, drink, and sleep history even on vacation. The first leg of the trip took us to Starkville Mississippi to drop off the fur baby -- a sixty pound Pitt/Dane mix that thinks he is my lap dog -- with my daughter. Of course, we made time to visit with her and her young man for a couple of hours, dinner at a nice restaurant a late movie, we then spent the night in her spare bedroom and were up and off to an early start the next morning. Starkville is home to Mississippi State University (Go Dawgs) and has a surprising number of amenities for such a small city because of this. We ate breakfast at an excellent local diner on main street the next morning and as we made our way to the highway, my lovely wife asked me if anything of historical significance had occurred in Starkville – she’s good like that, she knows the best way to get me talking is to ask me a history question. I replied not much, it was originally known as Boardtown, but the name was changed to Starkville in honor of a Revolutionary War hero, the University’s first president had been a former Civil War General, Oh and Grierson’s Raid had passed through Starkville. About that time, we passed the historical marker for the raid in front of the local Walgreen’s Pharmacy. That’s when it hit me, here we were one hundred and sixty-seven road miles from home and we were looking at a marker related to Vicksburg! Grierson’s Raid, ordered by U.S. Grant, was part of the Vicksburg Campaign! ---- You were beginning to wonder how I was going to bring this back around to Vicksburg weren’t you?
At the beginning of the Civil War the Confederacy owned the cavalry field, Southern Gentlemen were born and bred to the saddle, and most Southern Cavalrymen brought their own horses to the war. The Confederate Cavalry Generals – J.E.B. Stewart, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Earl Van Dorn, etc. – were legends in their own time. But the Union boys were good at playing “catch-up”! Colonel Benjamin Grierson, was not “born to the saddle” this former music teacher did not even like horses before the War, but apparently, he had overcome that shortcoming by April of 1863.
In April of 1863 Grant is moving his men down the West side of the Mississippi through the thick swamps of Northeast Louisiana. It is a slow process and it will take almost a month to move the army between Milliken’s Bend and Disharoon a distance of about 40 miles “as the crow flies” plenty of time for Pemberton to mass his army to oppose the planned crossing. Had Pemberton done so it would have been a bloody mess – think Omaha Beach, 81 years too soon! Grant has numbers but Pemberton has Geography, so Grant uses his numerical superiority to appear to be everywhere at once, by launching diversionary operations to keep Pemberton off balance and guessing as to his true intentions. The most audacious of these diversions was Grierson’s Raid.
On April 17th 1863, the day after the U.S. Navy ran the guns of Vicksburg, Grierson left LaGrange Tennessee at the head of a column of 1700 horse soldiers and several pieces of light artillery. For the next 16 days, they rode rough shod over lightly defended eastern Mississippi destroying railroads and tearing down telegraph wires and generally raising hell. The raid was largely successful because it faced no serious opposition, the bulk of Pemberton’s cavalry and his star horseman Nathan Bedford Forrest had been ordered to Tennessee by Pemberton’s superiors and infantry could not move quickly enough to counter a fast-moving horseman. Grierson rode into Union occupied Baton Rouge on May 2nd with only minimal casualties. --- but let’s get back to that marker in front of the Walgreen’s – On April 21st Grierson’s men rode into the little village and captured a wagon load of hats that they believed were destined for the Confederate Army. They promptly distributed the hats to the local slaves, and left town in a cloud of dust riding south. The next day the local newspaper castigated the men of Starkville for allowing this to happen. – I’m not really sure what the editor though they could have done to stop it. The Editorial concludes with the statement:
“All we can say is that we now have the best hatted slaves in the Confederacy!”
Pulled Pork Turneth Away Wrath By Morgan Gates
History is perhaps the most aptly named subject, for what is it but a collection of stories His -stories and Her-stories all glued to together in a shimmering web of time and place. Some are heroic, others tragic, or romantic, or scary, or funny, but we all have stories. A few of us have stories that will long outlast us, but for most of us our stories will not long survive our demise. Occasionally those of us who like to dumpster dive the past come across one of these discarded gems. I came across a couple of good stories lately while researching the 46th Mississippi Infantry in which my great great grandfather served.
Private Abner James Wilkes served in the 46th Mississippi Infantry alongside F.P. Gates, my ancestor, although in a different company. He was from Blountsville a small community that is today, the town of Prentiss about 75 miles southeast of Vicksburg and about 35 miles from the community of my Great-great grandfather. Some times after the war he wrote a brief account of his wartime experiences. Entitled A Short History of My Life in The Late War Between the North and The South about 1957 it was transcribed. Abner Wilkes was a master of brevity apparently for the account of three years of war including almost every major campaign in the western theater only takes up about twenty typed, double spaced pages. There are however several adventures worth retelling here.
After the fall of Atlanta as the Southern army is moving north toward Tennessee rations are short, it seems they always were among the Confederate Army. Abner and his friend Kit decide to do a bit of foraging. They slipped away from camp one evening and soon located a young pig, killed it dressed it and started back to camp. Here we must pause in our narrative to explain a few nuances of the time and place of this instant. This young pig was not a wild animal but the property of a southern farmer. A valuable commodity destined to stock the famers larder, or be sold for cash to purchase necessities of life. Neither food nor hard currency were as easily come by in those days as they are now. Livestock theft was a serious offence, in fact the infamous Hatfield & McCoy feud was allegedly begun by an incident just such as this. Nor were these two men Sherman’s Bummers, who so liberally liberated the provisions and property of southern civilians during the war. These were southern boys, and they had just committed a serious breach of military regulations, exigencies of the day being what they may. They tried of course to move as carefully as possible back to camp, but stealth is not easily accomplished with 100 or so of pounds of fresh pork slung over your shoulder. Just as they made it back to camp they were caught red handed, literally since this was a fresh kill, by the Brigade Commander General C.W. Sears. Who shouts out “Halt you Johnnies and give account of yourselves” hearing out their story General Sears’ next words must have been both puzzling and terrifying. He told them to return to their camp but to appear at his tent that night at 9 p.m. at which time he intended to have them shot. Their sole consolation was that at least they would die with full bellies. The Confederate army at this time is desperately short of all the necessities of life so the two “dead men walking” eat their final meal on a plate of freshly peeled pine bark. Once properly satiated, the two men discover they still have a good bit of meat left and Wilkes has a bright Idea, he piles another bark plate high with fresh pulled pork, slips over to the General’s tent and sets the still steaming plate on Sear’s table, then quietly retreats to the shadows to watch. The old man turns to see the mouthwatering treat, and partakes with gusto, thus becoming an accessory after the fact. The appointed hour of execution comes and goes without event and Abner Wilkes and his partner in crime will live to fight another day. In his brief memoir, Wilkes sums up the event by stating “so my friends if you ever find yourself about to be shot, just find yourself some fat pork and all will be alright”! But where you might ask is justice for the poor farmer deprived of his property, well we will just write that one off as another sacrifice in the cause of the noble south!
Information for the above article was extracted from a document in the files of the Old Courthouse Museum in Vicksburg MS. The document is a typed copy of a hand-written manuscript written by Abner Wilkes who served in the 46th MS infantry during the Civil War and passed on to his heirs. It was typed in the format in which saw it around 1957, by Retired Rear Admiral Ivan E. Bass.
by Meshea Crysup
Co-founder Rediscovering Historic Vicksburg
Note: Hubby does not like it when I use him in my stories,
so just let this be our little secret, please. ;-)
Last night, I was very disappointed because I did not get to go to Vicksburg Civil War Roundtable’s first meeting after Christmas break. Curt Fields/General Grant was our speaker and I had been looking forward to meeting him for months. But Hubby and I have both had “the crud”: coughing, blowing our noses, feeling like crap, etc. for going on two weeks now, and we just were not up to getting out.
I say, “we” optimistically, because I have not gotten him as onboard with Rediscovering Historic Vicksburg as I am--yet.
In fact, last night, at just two minutes before time for Roundtable to start, I glanced at the time and said, “I really wanted to go.”
Hubby replied, “So this guy is there portraying General Grant?”
I replied, “Yes…” knowing full-well what was coming next.
“Well, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed that.”
I sighed, then patiently said, “Roundtable isn’t about refighting the Civil War. It is about learning HISTORY. It is not a North/South thing.”
If Hubby is anything, he is predictable. He is also from New Orleans. I am--not.
“Well you just don’t understand. You didn’t lose the war.”
To be clear, this is just Hubby’s sense of humor. We have had this discussion many times and we actually mostly agree about the Civil War, but what fun is that? Obligingly, and with a smirk, I replied as I had many times before, “No one “won”. It was American against American. America lost.” He had gotten the desired “rise” out of me; the discussion was over. Plus, it was time to take another round of meds.
The next day, however, still not feeling well enough to get out, I replayed the scene in my head. Along with it came many recent memories:
What a unique time in American History—in World History—to be Rediscovering Historic Vicksburg!
As I do so, I am not a “damned Yankee” as Hubby, lovingly—I think—calls me. I do not do so identifying myself by my politics, race, gender, socio-economic group, or religion. I am Rediscovering Historic Vicksburg as an American. And yes, as I discussed in my last post, Vicksburg fascinates and attracts visitors from all over the world, but we do have American visitors as well. I am especially proud, given the list of issues above, when I see them, whether as individuals, families, groups on buses or riding bikes. I understand what Al meant—and I agree with him that in a very real sense that as a nation, we are still fighting the war—but not when we are Rediscovering Historic Vicksburg. When we are Rediscovering our history, anywhere, we are on the road to finally winning, once-and-for-all! I do not see North or South, Blue or Gray. I do not see race, gender, socio-economical group, or religion. When I see others from our nation come to Rediscover Historic Vicksburg, I see an American!
In fact, not to be political, but just patriotic, I am starting my own “hashtag”. I hope you will join me! Maybe we will inspire others not to just Rediscover Historic Vicksburg! Perhaps we can lead the way and, as a nation, we will Rediscover Historic America!
Family Reunion By Morgan Gates
Historian: (Noun) a person who researches, studies, and writes about the past, and is regarded as an authority on it.
I am a historian and I live in one of the most historically and culturally diverse parts of the United States. When most people think historian, they picture the university professor wearing a tweed sport coat, pipe in hand, eternally posed on the back dustjacket of a glossy book in the clearance bin at the local Barnes and Noble. Or perhaps a name etched in fading gold-leaf on the cover of some musty old scholarly tome. Buried deep in the stacks of some imposing old library, another dry scholarly book that reads like the “begat sections of the Bible”. That is not me! I sent my tweed jacket to the Salvation Army, a long time ago, and I have never been a fan of tobacco in any form or fashion. I have some books in the pipeline, and I may have a picture on the dustjacket at some point, but that remains to be seen. You see I believe that history is a living breathing thing, the story of who we are. History must be not just written but written well so that the story has life and will be remembered and retold and not just be filed away in some dusty archive, to be forgotten once more. This blog is an effort to do just that, to pull out the old dusty stories, first written down long ago, blow the dust off them and retell them for a more modern audience.
I also believe oral history is an important and often neglected part of the human experience, so you are likely to find me walking a historic battlefield relating a story of some long-forgotten hero, to fellow history lovers. Oral history may in fact be our most endangered cultural custom. It was our first way of remembering the past. Long before the first Mesopotamian scholar figured out how to “draw sound” by making imprints in wet clay, the old men sat around the fire at night and told stories of the past. Yet nobody listens to grandpa and grandma anymore, nuclear families dissolve and extended families scatter, the tribal elders move to Florida or they are shut away in nursing homes as obsolete relics of a bygone era, and YouTube and Facebook occupy their niche with inane babblings and fake news, and we lose our connections with the past. My own family is no exception.
I’ve often been asked when conducting a tour, what is your personal history, and here I fall short. My pat answer is that “ I am guilty of knowing everybody’s history but my own”. You see history can be a two edged sword, at least your own can. There is no pain in blowing off the dust of someone else’s history, but there can be within one’s own family… I was pretty sure there was no grand old antebellum mansion with my family’s name on it in my past. My parents were hard working blue collar middle class folk. My mother’s father was a sharecropper and my father who lived in town was also from a family of modest means. My father however was from a broken family. His parents had divorced when he was a child, and he had little contact with his natural father, and no desire to know of him. I only met the man once when I was very young, and he died in 1972, long before I was old enough to be interested in family history. --I reserve judgment on my grandfather, I never knew his side of the story and my grandmother could be a difficult woman, perhaps there was good reason, perhaps not -- That link in the family chain was broken.
I did not grow up in the computer age, I was already a grown man when the first personal computer was introduced, it would be many more years before I heard of ancestry.com, by that time more important things occupied my thought. Women, college, career pretty much in that order. My love of history led me to a career in education, and I did teach American and World History for a number of years, but soon the financial reality of marriage and family lead me out of the classroom and into more lucrative but less satisfying administrative work. As I wound down my career in the educational system a number of years ago, I began to return to my one true (professional) love—History, but by this time my parents had both passed and I figured that door had closed. Enter my friend Michael Logue, I first met him when he took over operation of my Historic & Haunted Vicksburg website. He had recently concluded a career in the computer realm, he too is a lover of history and we often work together in that field now. Michael; however, has a skill set that I do not, genealogy. When I learned of his skills in this area, I toyed with the idea of having him see what he could find, again a thought that simmered on the back burner for quite some time. A couple of weeks ago, I learned that he was teaching a four-week genealogy workshop, business is slow this time of year the time was ripe, I signed up.
I went to the class the first night with quite modest expectations. I had scrapped together a few names and birth/death dates, and I hoped by the end of the class to know if I had a relative that fought in the Civil War, I am after all a Civil War historian, and where if I was lucky. Michael took my scraggly “Charlie Brown Christmas Tree of a family tree” and in a few minutes, he had it bearing fruit! First, I met my estranged paternal grandfather, where he had lived what he did for a living, he was a veteran of WWI. Then my great grandfather, he lived about 90 miles from where I do. A simple farmer but he owned his own land and was mortgage free, he raised a large family, including a set of twins, my daughters are twins. Then to me the biggest plum, my great-great-grandfather. Franklin Plumber Gates! F.P. Gates was a private in the Confederate army 46th Mississippi Infantry. A veteran of the Vicksburg Campaign, engaged at the Battles of Chickasaw Bayou, Port Gibson, the assault on Stockade Redans on May 19th & 22nd and of course maned the trenches during the siege. Oh, the stories this man had to tell. I saw his signature on the parole document and yesterday I walked the section of trenches where he was stationed. I have a picture of his tombstone and one day in the not too distant future I will visit that grave. Just to introduce myself.
The Strange experience of William Selkrig
by Morgan Gates, Historic & Haunted Vicksburg
It is January 1778, and we are going to visit the farm of William Selkrig.
In the winter of 1778 The American Revolution is ongoing and George Washington’s Army is encamped at Valley Forge, but that is over 1000 miles away “again, as the crow flies” and likely three times that far following the rivers. As far as William is concerned it might as well be on the other side of the world, but all that is about to change for him.
Selkrig is a simple man, a pioneer in the truest sense of the word. He has a plot of fertile land, he has industriously cleared it and built himself a simple cabin. William is no squatter however; he has come by his land honestly. He has a land grant signed by the governor of the colony of British West Florida in far off Pensacola and he is not sitting idly in front of his fire this winter day, he is out working on his land. As he looks up from his work he sees a flatboat rounding the bend. -- Flatboats, were not unheard of on the Mississippi at this early date, but not terribly common either. There were old French settlements far upstream and squatters in search of land had been pushing west of the mountains for many years, but likely it was not and everyday occurrence -- William did not get many visitors, his farm was about sixty river miles above Natchez, and while there were small settlements much closer, traveling upriver was a daunting task in his day. The local Indians would stop by to trade, or pilfer, from time to time, but that was about it. He expects a shouted halloo at best as the vessel drifts by with the current. Instead the flatboat puts ashore and a ragtag band of armed men disembark and take William prisoner, the American Revolution has just come south!
The flatboat is “technically” a Continental warship named The Rattletrap and the armed men are Captain James Willing and his company of Continental Soldiers. They are enroute to New Orleans where they hope to gain material support for the cause from the Spanish authorities. Along the way, they are attacking “Tory” farms. Forget the textbook pictures of the crisp blue coats and tricorn hats though, this is a ragged bunch of frontier ner do wells and Willing, who really does have a Continental commission and was a former resident of the area, is likely less the patriot than the profiteer. As The Rattletrap make its way south, the pickings were not as easy. Many of the British settlers are former military men and in a skirmish somewhere north of Natchez, Willing is captured, and his little expedition ingloriously comes to an end. Selkrig free once more, makes his way back to his remote farm. During his absence, however, the Indians have plundered his cabin, he stays for a while but he no longer feels safe this far from civilization. William abandons his farm and moves south closer to Natchez and help.
Things are about to start changing in this little corner of the world. Within twenty years it will pass out of British control to the Spanish and then to the fledgling United States. Once in American hands settlers will begin to flood in. William Selkrig will live to see this happen but he will lose title to his land grant in the transition.
The area where William’s farm was located was on a point of land formed by a large bend in the river known as Three Islands to the British, in the early days of American settlement of Warren County (in which Vicksburg is located) this same bend came to be known as Palmyra – named for a biblical city built by King Solomon – as the cotton boom began much of the land was purchased by a wealthy planter who soon became one of the wealthiest men in Mississippi. He in turn split off a sizable portion and gave it to his baby brother, who had just returned from military service. The little brother would use the proceeds of this fertile land to begin a promising political career, after he had built his own residence there of course. This residence, while much plainer than the antebellum mansions of Natchez and Vicksburg, was much finer than William Selkrig’s modest cabin. This new residence was named Brierfield, the home of Jefferson Davis, and the older brother was Joseph Davis, whose plantation Hurricane was right next door. War once again visits this bend in the river 84 years later when the US Navy burns Hurricane on its way to Vicksburg. Brierfield survives but post war it is converted into an experimental freedman’s colony, which eventually fails and in 1867 the restless Mississippi shifts in its course and “Davis Bend” becomes “Davis Island”. In 1931 Brierfield burned to the ground.
Today the spot where Brierfield once stood, while still part of the state of Mississippi is on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River. A few brick pillars, are all that remain of Davis’ home. A few metal farm buildings and a grass air strip for crop dusters nearby reminds that we are in the 21st century and not the 18th, but not much else. As for Selkrig’s cabin, nothing remains to mark its spot, nothing… nothing but the land, the trees and the river that is!
*any amount of frozen precipitation, of sufficient quantity, to be easily visible to the naked eye.
--Picture by Google Earth
Rediscovering Historic Vicksburg:
Where Does One Start?
by Meshea Crysup
Hubby and I were sitting in a local restaurant yesterday. Behind him, there was a young couple, enthuastically chatting away, but I could not understand a word they were saying. It may have been French or German—I could not hear them plainly and I only speak English, so I do not know. What I do know is that this is more common than one might expect in Vicksburg, MS. Foreign tourists are fascinated by our rich Civil War History. In fact, while the latest statistics I could find stated that Vicksburg National Military Battlefield has between 532,444 and one million visitors a year, what it did not say, nor could I find statistics for, is that a good deal of them will not be from this country. Shocked? I can tell you I was, but I have seen first-hand, it is true. For me, this begs the question:
“How do people from all over the world know about Vicksburg?”
Frankly, I am still working on that one. One thing for sure, however, is that whether from this country or halfway around the world, they all seem to know where to start their visit here: The Vicksburg National Military Park.
Granted, this might not be the ideal starting point for every tourist, but if it is your first trip to Vicksburg and its role in Civil War history is at least part of why you are visiting, it is a logical and obvious choice. You can visit their website to learn details such as cost, hours of operation, tour options, etc., and I will provide the link below.
The one thing that most surprised me and that I feel strongly you should know is the amount of time one should plan on spending in the park.
Of course, it will vary depending upon how deeply you want to delved into all of the monuments and information available, but be prepared: the drive through the park is not a short one! With minimal stops, picture taking, and plaque reading, and depending upon the traffic in the park, you will be at least an hour. This type of visit will provide you only a glimpse into what the park holds. Truthfully, I believe I could spend a week there and not take in all the history Vicksburg National Military Park contains.
There is certainly more to see and do in Vicksburg and we are working quite diligently to add to the options available in order to appeal to everyone. After all, while a family may all have an interest in history, the kiddos might not want to spend as much time in the park. In fact, mom and dad would probably enjoy something else as well, such as a great dinner followed by a fun night of listening to Blues! In fact, wherever you start your time in Vicksburg you really cannot go wrong!
~Meshea Crysup, Co-founder Rediscovering Historic Vicksburg
Website and Phone Number for the Vicksburg National Military Park
Old Rodney: part 2 By Morgan Gates
The extinct town of Rodney was still very much alive during the Civil War. While no major fights occurred there the town was not left completely unscathed. After the fall of Vicksburg, its close proximity to so large a concentration of enemy forces meant it could not remain untouched. At one point a Regiment of bluecoats responding to rumors of Confederate troops in the area, ransacked every house in town. On another occasion a Yankee cavalry raiding party disembarked at its port and dashed through town on its way inland. The Yankees were captured by Confederates well inland. But the most interesting event of the war in Rodney, started from the most innocent of beginnings.
In the late summer of 1863 the pastor of the Presbyterian church in the little community of Red Lick not too far from Rodney, found his welcome wearing thin. The idea that the nation was uniformly divided along the Mason-Dixon line is largely a myth. ---Pemberton the commander of the Confederates that defended Vicksburg so gallantly was from Pennsylvania, the Naval Commander that had shelled the city so mercilessly was from Tennessee--- The Reverend Baker was a Union Man, again not an unheard situation, but an unpopular one. Regular transportation north, however, was not easily come by in the early years of the war. When Vicksburg fell in the summer of 1863 commercial steamboat traffic resumed on the Mississippi. Reverend Baker soon made his way to Rodney to arrange transportation upriver. Reverend Baker found no northbound paddle wheelers docked at Rodney, there was however a Union gunboat floating nearby, and Acting Master E.H. Fentress of the USS Rattler invited Reverend Baker to be his guest as he awaited a northbound steamer.
The Rattler was and aptly named vessel, small enough to be quick yet still packing a potent punch, she was what was known as a “Tinclad” in navy parlance. She began her life as the Florence Miller, an ordinary sternwheel built for river commerce, but the navy had stripped away unnecessary weight, reinforced her wooden structure, covered her vitals with an inch of iron and mounted six heavy guns, two heavy 24 pounder smooth bores and two 30 pounder Parrot rifles. Compared to the heavy ironclads like the Cairo, or the Benton she was a bantamweight but she could outrun anything she couldn’t outfight and outfight anything she couldn’t outrun. Once the Confederate river forts had been pounded into submission, the tinclads performed yeoman service patrolling the river.
While the Reverend Baker enjoyed Fentress’ hospitality, Reverend Robert Price, the pastor of the Presbyterian Church at Rodney, invited his fellow man of the cloth to preach one final service in Mississippi, and Baker graciously accepted. Perhaps hoping return the hospitality of Acting Master Fentress, Baker invited him and some of his crew to attend the service. Fentress and 18 crew members accepted. Here we must pause and wonder what Fentress was thinking! The river was back in Union hands but there were no Union garrisons between Vicksburg and Natchez and the war was far from over. Still Rodney was small and the Rattler floated nearby, and so On Sunday Morning September 13 1863, Fentress went to church. They say that there are no secrets in small towns, and sure enough, Lt. Allen of the Confederate Cavalry with about 30 men decided to show up as well. A small skirmish in which 15-20 shots were fired ensued –amazingly nobody was killed or seriously wounded-- and Fentress and most of his party were captured. As soon as word reached the Rattler the gunboat began shelling the town, one of the shells struck the church, but Lt. Allen and his prisoners were safely out of range by that time. The remainder of the Rattler’s crew threated to burn the town, until Lt. Allen promised to hang the prisoners if they did. The Rattler steamed away to Natchez to report the incident and Captain Fentress and his righteous crew got to enjoy a little southern hospitality at Libby Prison in Richmond VA until October 1864. The Rattler continued to patrol the river until the end of December 1864 when she was sunk by a snag during a heavy gale. Of Reverend Baker’s fate, we don’t know, but we can likely assume, that much chagrined, he caught the next steamer headed north to Yankee land, turning his back on the land of cotton, and hoping “his old times there WILL be forgotten” but not if we can help it.
Look away..look away…look away…Dixie Land!